Scrambling to combat a growing air pollution crisis, Britain announced on Wednesday that sales of new diesel and gas cars would reach the end of the road by 2040, the latest step in Europe’s battle against the damaging environmental impact of the internal combustion engine.
Britain’s plans match a similar pledge made this month by France, and are part of a growing global push to curb emissions and fight climate change by promoting electric cars. Carmakers are also adjusting, with Volvo notably saying recently that it would phase out the internal combustion engine in the coming years and BMW deciding to build an electric version of its popular Mini car in Britain.
But the shift to electric vehicles will be a gradual one, and the target set by Britain is less ambitious than some of the efforts elsewhere. President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord has also dented optimism.
Britain’s new clean air strategy, published on Wednesday, calls for sales of new gas and diesel cars and vans to end by 2040. The government will also make 255 million pounds, or $332 million, available for local governments to take short-term action, such as retrofitting buses, to reduce air pollution.
“It is important that we all gear up for a significant change which deals not just with the problems to health caused by emissions, but the broader problems caused in terms of accelerating climate change,” Michael Gove, the country’s environment secretary, told the BBC.
Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, promised a “green revolution in transport,” adding that the government wanted nearly every car and van on Britain’s roads to have zero emissions by 2050.
The strategy document was published after a protracted legal battle in which ministers were ordered by the courts to produce new plans to tackle illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide.
In France, the promise to end sales of traditional cars was made as part of a renewed commitment to the Paris accord.
In Britain, which is also committed to the Paris treaty, the measures have particular political significance because of rising concern over the level of air pollution, particularly in large cities like London. Poor air quality, much of it a result of pollution from vehicles, is estimated to cause between 23,000 and 40,000 deaths nationwide every year.
Frederik Dahlmann, assistant professor of global energy at Warwick Business School, described Wednesday’s announcement as “an important step” that set a clear long-term target, and “also gives car buyers an incentive to consider the different types of engine options available in light of the long-term development of the market.”
Still, he said, the long-term nature of the announcement left a significant question hanging: “How does the government intend to improve air quality and reduce transport related emissions in the short term?”
Critics, including Ed Miliband, a former leader of the opposition Labour Party and an ex-environment secretary, argued that the government was failing to tackle the current pollution crisis.
Another former environment secretary, Ed Davey of the centrist Liberal Democrats, described the government’s failure to commit to a plan to compensate diesel car owners who scrap or retrofit highly polluting vehicles as a “shameful betrayal.”
Others also say the country’s efforts are not aggressive enough — France has also set 2040 as its target, but Norway intends to sell only electric cars from 2025, and India wants to do so by 2030.
Cars typically have a life span of around 15 years, so even if Britain follows through with its target, conventional engines are likely to be on the country’s roads more than a decade later.
Britain’s decision is, however, the latest indication of how swiftly governments and the public in Europe have turned against diesel and internal combustion engines in general.
Automakers, though reluctant to abandon technologies that have served them well for more than a century, are increasingly resigned to the demise of engines that run on fossil fuels. They are investing heavily in battery-powered cars as they realize their traditional business is threatened by Tesla or emerging Chinese companies, which have a lead in electric car technology.
The shift away from internal combustion engines is in large part a result of growing awareness of the health hazards of diesel.
Cities like Madrid, Munich and Stuttgart are considering diesel bans. Sales of diesel cars are plunging. Political leaders are under pressure to end the de facto subsidies of diesel fuel that prevail in Europe.
European countries kept taxes on diesel lower than on gasoline in the belief that it was kinder to the planet. Diesel engines do spew less carbon dioxide, a cause of global warming, than gasoline engines. But they produce more nitrogen oxides, a family of gases that cause asthma and are responsible for the smog that sometimes blankets London and other major cities.
Rather than encourage a shift back to gasoline cars, governments and automakers are focusing increasingly on electric cars. They are the only vehicles that emit neither nitrogen oxides like diesel nor large amounts of carbon dioxide like gasoline.
But the impending shift has raised doubts about whether countries like Britain will be able to create the infrastructure, and generate the electricity, needed for such a radical change in the way people travel.
Jack Cousens, a spokesman for Britain’s largest motoring organization, the AA, said there would need to be “significant investment in order to install charging points across the country, especially fast-charge points,” and added that it was questionable whether the electricity grid “could cope with a mass switch-on after the evening rush hour.”